When moving to a new country, I think it’s best to try to learn to adapt to its cultural norms as swiftly as possible. While traveling, it’s always been important to me to learn how to say, “hello” and “thank you” in the country’s native language at the very least. I also find it important to read a bit on a country’s culture beforehand so I’m aware of anything that may be foreign to me, such as not tipping the server at a restaurant or making sure my shoulders are covered.
However, after spending a longer period of time in a country, one will begin to notice some of the stranger aspects of its culture. It might not always be easy to immediately adapt to these more significant parts of a culture, and can prove to be frustrating at times. However, it is possible.
Now that I’ve been living and working in South Korea for nearly two years, there are a few quirky customs, typical scenarios and unique habits that have become commonplace to me. It’s hard to believe these are all aspects of Korean culture and society that once seemed so foreign and/or goofy to me!
- Stressful bus situations
While public transportation in Korea is pretty amazing, there is something to be said about the local bus system. Getting on a local bus can truly be a whirlwind experience leaving you wonder, “What just happened?”
The drivers maneuver their way through the busy traffic erratically, speeding through lights and turning sharp corners. All the while, these magicians still maintain their ability to get everyone where they need to be in a timely manner.
Exiting the vehicle is an entirely new experience within itself. As soon as a bus begins to slow down in the slightest, everyone will immediately stand up and crowd toward the exit toward the back of the bus.
The moment the bus doors open (often they open as the bus is still moving) and the bus comes to a complete stop, everyone shoves one another off. The time period of this situation in particular seems to be less than three seconds. Bus drivers often do not check to see if everyone has gotten off, so it’s best to follow the Koreans’ hectic routine and relax once your feet hit the pavement.
- Shouting at servers
Back home in America, servers at restaurants have a tendency to be a bit too annoying. “How’s your food?” they’ll ask, as your mouth is full of the sandwich you’re chewing. “Can I get you anything else?”
Here in Korea, one thing I really appreciate is the fact that servers generally do a total of three things: ask what you want to eat, bring said food to you and stand at the check out register when you’re done and ready to pay.
If you need more water at any point during your meal, there are often water dispensers with cups for you do serve yourself. However, if you need something like a new beer, bottle of soju, or more side dishes, you have to call attention to your server. This is usually done by screaming, “CHO-GEE-YO!” which basically translates to “I’m over here.”
While I wouldn’t ever imagine doing something like this back in my home country, it is something that is completely normal in Korea and isn’t seen as disrespectful in any way, shape or form.
- Pushing without apologizing
This is definitely something that I’ve grown accustomed to, but it doesn’t mean I agree with it. I’ve lived in big cities before, but not one that’s as densely populated as Seoul.
In Chicago, if the train was packed for the morning or evening commutes, people knew better than to shove themselves on. First of all, it’s incredibly uncomfortable for yourself as well as those around you. Second of all, almost always, another train will be on its way within the next two to three minutes.
However, in Korea, this is the normal. Not only do people not want to arrive late to their job, there is no sense of personal space whatsoever in this country. I’ve gotten used to being pushed and shoved on a regular basis, all of which go without apologizing. I’m embarrassed to say that I often have to push through the large crowds without saying anything, which I would never do back in America. Most of the time, I do say “Je-song-hamnida,” which is the formal way of saying “I’m sorry” in Korean because I just can’t feel good about pushing people otherwise.
- Plastic surgery
Korea is the plastic surgery capital of the world. Yes, this tiny peninsula holds that title. I am currently living in a neighborhood called Apujeong in the Gangnam neighborhood, which is the epicenter of it all. I am constantly surrounded by the advertisements, hospitals and patients, so it’s definitely had to become something that I’m used to.
Tourists and locals alike flock to surgical centers in Gangnam for a number of controversial procedures.
One of the most popular procedures is the infamous double eyelid surgery, in which a portion of an eyelid is removed to give the patient with smaller, “Asian” eyes a more “Westernized” look. In addition, people are drawn to the sometimes fatal, always controversial jaw reduction procedure, in which the patient has their cheek, jaw and chin bones shaved down to create a “perfect V shape.” They even have discounts if you go to these surgery centers with a friend! Now that’s my kind of deal!
- The self-indulgence
Koreans are known for being….erm, a bit, vain. There are mirrors placed everywhere throughout public spaces, which are frequently used by men and women alike to ensure they look their best. Public bathrooms at train stations are often filled with young women doing their make up or taking photographs of themselves. Groups of people often sit in silence as they’re staring at themselves using their front-facing camera or taking selfies.
A friend of mine recently went to a public pool and witnessed a group of women taking photos of themselves for hours without ever actually going into the water. They even had a costume change about halfway through their three-hour long photoshoot. But honestly though, if you don’t Instagram something, did it really even happen?
I participated in The Color Run 5k race here in Seoul, and didn’t see a single person actually running. Instead, most people were walking slowly taking photographs of themselves or finding spots in the grass to have photo sessions. It was bizarre and strange and I felt it to be something out of an Aldous Huxley novel. Though I’ve certainly taken a few photos of myself or with my friends using my front-facing camera, I’d like to believe I’m not this extreme. However, this is the normal in Korea!
One thing that I do on a regular basis without even realizing it is bowing to people. I walk into work as say hello to my Korean elders? I do a slight bow. I receive food at a restaurant? I say “thank you,” with a slight bow. I accidentally bump into somebody on the street? You guessed it: I do a slight bow and tell them I’m sorry.
Bowing to elders, strangers or just about anyone is a sign of respect in Korea. The bowing I do is considered pretty casual for Korean culture; it’s just more of a head nod so to speak.
I’ll never forget when I first moved to Korea and was introduced to the mothers of my kindergarten students. Upon greeting them, I reached out my hand for a handshake. They awkwardly bowed while shaking my hand and I felt slightly embarrassed. Fast forward to two years later, it feels fairly foreign to me to reach out my hand for a hand shake, despite the fact that’s what I was taught to do my entire life. While I find absolutely nothing wrong with handshaking, I’m just not used to it these days. With that said, I dig the bow and I think it’s great.
One thing I really appreciate about Korean culture is the fact that everyone shares with one another. It’s typically considered rude for others to eat something in front of you without making sure everyone else has some, too. This is definitely something that is embraced back home, but not to the extent it is in Korea.
While hiking through the gorgeous mountains of Korea, I’ve been stopped by older Koreans on several occasions and asked if I wanted some fruit or small snacks. They love to see when foreigners do something they view as typically “Korean” (in this case, hiking) so they show their gratitude by sharing a slice of orange or an apple. I find it so endearing and it’s definitely something I will remember when I leave this country.
- Removing my shoes
As I write this, I oddly feel very anxious about the thought of sitting on a couch wearing shoes, or walking around inside without taking off my shoes.
Before moving here, I didn’t think twice about whether or not I was removing my shoes. I grew up in a house where sometimes we took them off, sometimes we didn’t. It wasn’t necessarily a rule, so to speak. However, in Korea it is a sign of respect to remove your shoes before entering someone else’s home. This scenario also pops up at certain restaurants.
At first, this concept was foreign to me, but as I mentioned, now I prefer to do it the Korean way.
So there you have it! These quirky cultural and societal differences may be a world different than what I was used to growing up, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Have you adopted any different habits while living abroad? I’d love to know!